Science fiction has a plethora of ideas about what happened in the past and what to expect from the future. Unfortunately, not all of those ideas are exactly plausible in reality. In Suspension of Disbelief, we’ll take a look at the best ideas from sci-fi movies, books, comics and video games to see where (and if) they intersect with the real world.
One of the most striking images from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is that of an Imperial Star Destroyer hanging menacingly in the air over an ancient Jedi city. We’ve never seen the six-million ton ship in-atmosphere before and, to quote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it hangs in the air in much the same way that bricks don’t. Which is to say, its design doesn’t really make any sense for heavier-than-air flight. The largest plane the humans in our galaxy have ever built was the Antonov An-225 Mriya. It weighed 1/10,000 of what the Star Destroyer does and had to conform to the rather specific design that all planes must in order to generate lift, something the Star Destroyer doesn’t bother with.
It took humanity centuries of trial and error to figure out the design and combination of materials and power sources that allow for heavier-than-air flight, and if we expect to ever make something like the Star Destroyer, it’s going to take a few more centuries and a lot more experimentation.
Click through the gallery to see a history of the less-than-successful attempts to build a powered, heavier-than-air flying machine.
Hailing from upstate New York, Cameron Wade is a freelance writer interested in movies, video games, comic books and more. You can find his work at protogeektheblog.wordpress.com.
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Leonardo da Vinci's ornithopter (circa 1500)
Leonardo da Vinci, the consummate Renaissance man, had a lifelong fascination with flight, designing a number of different contraptions including this ornithopter. Like many of his contemporaries and successors, da Vinci's machine mimicked the shape and movement of birds by having wings that the pilot would manually flap. It's not clear if da Vinci ever actually built his ornithopter but even if he did, it likely wouldn't have worked. Birds are a natural inspiration for heavier-than-air flight, but later aviators would discard the notion of copying their structure and mechanics because of the constrictions it places on the machine, namely, the amount of energy it requires and the amount of weight it forbids.
Image via Hulton Archive/Getty
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The Marquis de Bacqueville's paddles (1742)
The history of aviation has no shortage of would-be inventors strapping some material to their bodies and leaping off of tall buildings in pursuit of glory, usually to disastrous results. One such person was Jean-François Boyvin de Bonnetot, the Marquis de Bacqueville, who, in 1742, strapped large paddles to his hands and feet and leapt from his mansion on the bank of the River Seine in Paris in an attempt to fly over the 500-foot wide river. The flight, which was recorded by famed French philosopher Rousseau in his Revue de la Normandie, appeared to be going well until the Marquis was about halfway over the river. He reportedly began to waver, possibly due to the wind, fell to the deck of a boat on the river, and broke one of his legs. According to Rousseau, the Marquis' flight became a running joke among the nobility and he gave up on his aviation dreams.
Image via Hulton Archive/Getty
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Jean-Marie Le Bris' The Artificial Albatross (1856)
In 1856, just a few years after Sir George Cayley achieved the first sustained glider flight, Jean-Marie Le Bris, a French aviator, built a glider called The Artificial Albatross, inspired by the shape of the seabird. Le Bris took his Albatross to a beach and, using a horse and cart to get up to speed, flew for 660 feet and reached a height of up to 330 feet, the first time a heavier-than-air craft flew higher than its original point of departure. On his second flight, the Albatross reportedly crashed and Le Bris broke his leg. Pictured is Le Bris' second Albatross built in 1868, which had the additional capability of shifting its weight in order to provide rudimentary steering. This second version wasn't as successful as the first, but it does hold the honor of being the first fixed-wing aircraft ever photographed.
Image via Wikipedia
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Hiram Maxim's test rig (1894)
Hiram Maxim was an inventor who had found tremendous success with the Maxim machine gun, the first self-powered, recoil-operated machine gun. In 1892, Maxim used part of his fortune to build an airplane test rig that had six tiers of detachable wings, a 110-foot wingspan, two steam engines and two propellers, each over 17 feet long. The test rig was never meant to actually fly and was locked onto an 1,800-foot long track. Maxim intended for it to test the effects of lift on different wing shapes and configurations. During its third test in 1894, the 7,000 pound rig, with Maxim and three others on board, broke free of its track flying 200 yards at 38 miles per hour and just a few feet above the ground, before it crashed back down again. Maxim abandoned the test rig soon afterwards concluding that the engines of the day weren't efficient enough to compensate for their own weight. Despite that, he predicted that "under the most unfavorable circumstances, aerial navigation will be an accomplished fact inside of ten years."
Image via Wikipedia
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Clément Ader's Avion III (1897)
Clément Ader was a French inventor credited with improving Alexander Graham Bell's telephone and creating the first stereo sound system. Ader also took an interest in aviation and, using steam engines of his own design, built the Éole in 1886 which reportedly took off and flew 8 inches off the ground for 160 feet. This success attracted the interest of the French minister of war who backed the development of Ader's third flying machine, the Avion III. Like his previous machines, the Avion III was modeled on bats, with a 48-foot wingspan, a rudimentary rudder and two propellers each powered by a steam engine. In 1897, the machine was tested on a circular track, but during its first attempted flight, it was caught by the wind, pushed off the track, and crashed. After the failed flight, the French Ministry of War withdrew its funding and the Avion was abandoned. When proper airplanes began to take off in the early 1900s, Ader would claim that the Avion III had flown in 1897, making him the first man in Europe to fly, but his claim has been roundly disproven.
Image via Wikipedia
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Samuel Langley's aerodrome (1903)
Samuel Langley was a scientist, aviator, and contemporary of the Wright brothers. Langley designed what he called an "aerodrome," a gasoline-powered machine with a pair of wings in the front and rear, as well as a tail. In 1896, he successfully tested an unmanned and one-quarter sized model of the aerodrome, which earned him $50,000 from the U.S. Army to build the full-scale version and prompted then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt to start the Navy's first investigation into the military utility of aviation. In 1902, while working on the aerodrome, Langley heard of the Wrights' successful glider design and attempted to get in contact with them multiple times. The Wrights were notoriously secretive and protective with their project and so they avoided Langley's communications. Two months before the Wright brothers' historic flight in December, Langley attempted to fly his aerodrome by throwing it from atop a houseboat on the Potomac River with a special launcher. The aerodrome left the launcher and immediately fell into the water, but Langley blamed the launcher for not properly letting go of the aerodrome. He attempted the flight again two months later (nine days before the Wrights' made their famous flights at Kitty Hawk), and, this time, the rear wings and tail crumpled the instant it left the launcher. The aerodrome once again fell directly into the river, almost drowning its pilot. Newspapers lambasted Langley and his aerodrome and he abandoned the project.
Image via Wikipedia
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Alexander Graham Bell's Cygnet II (1907)
Cracking the secret to heavier-than-air flight proved a conundrum for even the most renowned scientists of the day, like, for example, the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell. In 1899, Bell attempted to solve the problem all fixed-wing aircrafts have to deal with: the balance between having a large enough surface area to create lift and being too heavy to be lifted. Bell's final design was based on the structure of kites with a massive 42-foot wingspan that used tetrahedral-shaped cells to hold small sails. The design was finally built in 1907 (four years after the Wright brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk), but it didn't go well. The Cygnet was towed over the Atlantic Ocean by a boat and flew as high as 168 feet before the wind sent it crashing into the ocean. The line connecting Cygnet to the towboat didn't break as it was supposed to and the pilot, still strapped into the plane, was dragged underwater, though he survived the incident uninjured. Later versions were built with their own engines (including Cygnet II) but none of them were able to get more than a few feet off the ground and the design was abandoned.
Image via Wright-Brothers.org